Car review: Big out in the big city, GMC Yukon Denali vacations in Chicago

CHICAGO — This is a big city. Large buildings. Great roads. Big sports teams. Big shoulders. Big fuss.

The big, bling-tastic three-row 17 1/2-foot-long 2023 GMC Yukon Denali fits right in.

Well, mostly. I drove GMC’s three-ton flagship to the Windy City for family Thanksgiving with the in-laws, where the big patio was as useful as 335-pound William “Refrigerator” Perry on the Soldier Field finish line. And as awkward as the refrigerator trying to squeeze into a display case at Eleven City Diner on Wabash. There was never a dull moment.

Tell Mrs. Payne it’s a family holiday gathering and she’ll start packing a week in advance. Good thing we had the Denali and its yawning 123 cubic feet of cargo space. We packed it with wrapped Christmas presents, food, suitcases, laptop bags, cooler, tennis bag and a partridge in a pear tree.

I stomped on the Denali’s gut-wrenching 6.2-liter, 420-horsepower V-8 and we were in Chi-town in no time, cruising up State Street in our five-story SUV — waving at people in their apartments — to our hotel at the near north side. You might think we were an anomaly on Chicago’s crowded residential streets, but you’d be wrong.

Despite $4 a gallon gas, a gridded street system laid out 100 years ago, and parking lots the size of postage stamps, Chicago was bustling with giant SUVs and pickup trucks. In our fancy North Side neighborhood, I saw a lot of Yukons, Chevy Tahoes, Ram 1500s, Ford F-150s and Expeditions — and only two Chevy Bolt EVs all weekend. As industrial production bursts into government-mandated electric vehicles—and the gas-guzzling costs of paying for them—it was a telling sight. If I had driven an electric car, I would have had few opportunities to charge it – the center only had two fast chargers.

My Denali Ultimate cost an eye-watering $97,000, but its electronic gizmos are quickly trickling down into more affordable vehicles—making huge terrains more drivable in small places. Typical of GM vehicles, its ergonomics are superb with intuitive scroll wheels in the steering wheel to adjust the cruise control, knobs for climate control, buttons for self-parking. Yes, self parking. On Walton Street west of the Magnificent Mile, I saw a white Yukon Denali Ultimate—the salt-colored opposite of my black pepper model—parallel park itself. Then its mother hen climbed down from the cockpit, dragged a stroller from the back, and pushed three chicks into the nearby Lululemon.

She seemed like a seasoned pro, no doubt using GMC’s hands-free Enhanced Automatic Parking Assist – one of my favorite urban features. GM also has one of the most advanced self-driving systems in the industry (more on that later).

I didn’t care about parallel parking in Chicago; I tried something more difficult: parking in a garage.

My relatives live in a building built in 1925. The garage underneath it is a mouse maze designed for cars from that era, not today’s barges. The 6’5″ tall Yukon barely made it through the front door, but then its sensor system kicked into action to help me squeeze the Denali into its intended place.

So concerned is building management about damage to tenants’ cars that they’ve wrapped the garage’s thick pillars in rubberized bumpers. Denali customers need not worry. Thanks to a 360-degree camera view, I could see all four corners at all times. Got too close to a pillar and my seat buzzed. I had to saw back and forth several times to get into my space – but I did.

I just ask that GMC make the car’s 10-inch infotainment screen bigger — think of the massive 17-inch instrument panel on the Cadillac Escalade — to better see multiple camera views. The larger screen would also match the Denali’s sleek interior, which looks like a room in a Mar-a-Lago mansion.

The dash and doors were lined with open-pore Paldeo wood (laser-etched with a topographic map of Mount Denali, natch), panoramic sunroof, and Alpine Umber-stitched massaging leather seats (what, no chandelier?). It’s gorgeous, though it’s just shy of the opulent Jeep Grand Wagoneer I recently tested.

My 20-something nephews were suitably impressed as they piled in to go to Grandma’s house for turkey dinner. The Yukon Denali might have been able to fit all 37 members of my wife’s extended family, but on this night we only needed to transport five, including my 6’5″ and 6’3″ nephews. They could have easily fit into any of the Yukon’s three rows. Yes, even row #3, made comfortable thanks to an independent rear suspension for better legroom. Two levers on the sides of the second-row seats provide access to the third row by either sliding the seats – or simply flattening them.

After patiently pulling the Denali out of the garage, we plunged into the thick holiday traffic on I-94 north of suburban Winnetka. Super cruise time.

The ’23 Yukon Denali Ultimate is equipped with the General’s latest, enhanced Super Cruise hands-free driving system that maps 400,000 miles of American roads and automatically switches to the fastest moving lane. While it’s not as ambitious as Tesla’s autopilot (it won’t automatically follow the navigation direction and leave the highway), it’s always improving.

That includes anticipating slower cars in its path and aggressively moving into the left lane. — too aggressive in some cases, forcing me to take over the steering so the car behind me doesn’t have to brake.

The system is ready for prime time – but what about people? This was the first time my millennial relatives had been in a hands-free stroller, and they were noticeably anxious. In the end, they trusted their motorhead uncle’s judgment but wouldn’t use the system themselves.

Super Cruise is more natural on long, less crowded rural stretches of freeway like I-94 between Gary, Indiana and Ann Arbor. I walked independently for several kilometers and relaxed with my hands on my knees as if I was sitting in a leather chair at home.

Don’t get too comfortable though. The system struggled as rain began to fall south of Lake Michigan. “Supercruise not available. Sensor Can’t Find Lane Lines,” the screen read as the Denali handed control back to me – the green monitor light on the steering wheel changing to red.

Fortunately, we weren’t challenged by fuel range. Truck-based three-row GM SUVs may guzzle gas like Bears fans guzzle beer after a win — but they’ve got big bellies to store it in, too. With 24 liters on board and 16 mpg, I only needed to make a five minute stop for fuel on our 600 mile round trip.

2023 GMC Yukon

Vehicle type: Front engine, rear and four-wheel drive six- or seven-passenger SUV

Award: $59,295, including $1,795 destination charge ($97,745 Yukon Denali Ultimate 4WD as tested)

Power plant: 5.2-liter V-8 engine; 6.2-liter V-8; 3.0-liter inline-6-cylinder turbodiesel

Force: 355 horsepower, 383 pound-feet of torque (5.2-liter V-8); 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque (6.2-liter V-8); 277 horsepower, 468 pound-feet of torque (diesel)

Transfer: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (car and driver); towing, 7,500 pounds (as tested)

Weight: 5,827 pounds (as tested)

Fuel Economy: EPA Est. mpg 14 city/20 highway/16 combined (as tested)

Evaluation report

Tops: Space for many families; tech-tastic for urban maneuvers

Minimum values: Small screen compared to competitors; will be expensive

Overall: 4 stars

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